Drawing Through Beijing
Drawing is an integral part of Rebecca Alston’s travels. Creating while she’s away from her studio offers an understanding and connection to the region she is in. It defines her experience and offers a sense of placement.
While in China, Alston created a series of drawings. The pieces are “The Color of the
Hutongs”, “Red” and “Urban Pattern China”, which were all directly related to her experience and impression while traveling.
Social and economic changes were happening quickly in Beijing, China in the late 90’s and into the early 2000’s. Alston’s drawing "The Color of the Hutongs" though, was able to capture the pattern of the inner-city hutong village in its original state as the government was in the process of upgrading to indoor plumbing and electricity to increase economic tourism.
Alleyway-type lanes created by cement walls of single-story courtyard houses made up these villages that are called hutongs. The walls were dark in color and the roads were damp, though the hutong communities were a staple in Beijing dating back to ancient times.
Alston became aware through her drawings of the impact of coal on this specific environment, which reflected on a large scale throughout China during the winter.
“The Color of the Hutongs” used a color palette that drew from the soot-covered walls and frozen rivers in Beijing. Alston subconsciously added the shapes in the piece as well as in “Urban Pattern China” that mimicked the narrow, winding streets in the hutong. The drawings depicted the restricted and dreary feeling of her time visiting the village.
The absence of color in “The Color of the Hutongs” is due to the strict rules about color being used on buildings in China during the imperialistic period, Alston explains. “If you were to even have a colored awning on a structure, everyone in it could be at risk of execution. Color was reserved only for use by royalty,” she says.
Her third drawing from the trip, “Red” has a stronger, more hard-handed message having to due with China’s broader history and the violence that surrounded it. Specifically, the massacre at Tiananmen Square that occurred in 1989 stuck with Alston and held a large part in the motivation for the piece. “When I was in Tiananmen Square in early 2000, I could still feel the presence of the massacre,” Alston explains.
These three pieces are some of her smaller works, though they had a large impact on her travels through China. She rarely was able to create large-scale pieces while traveling but that was the beauty of it, she explains.
“By drawing smaller pieces while traveling, I knew where I was at a given time and had found a position of better understanding of the world by doing so,” Alston says.
She is currently working on larger-scale pieces that stem from the series of the three drawings.
Creating drawings while traveling through Beijing, offered her a feeling of being grounded even being surrounded with such oppression by the older generation of the local communities. It also lent her a different level of consciousness about what she was experiencing. “Traveling and creating simultaneously has always influenced my work and brought about many changes and new ideas,” she shares.